After losing his job as a teacher, Charlie Carroll made a penniless journey on foot from his home in a Cornish village to London, sleeping rough along the way. The experience changed his life and his appreciation of walking.Click here to download an exclusive excerpt of Charlie reading from the 'Cornish Coast' chapter of his book
Travellers in the US are distinguished by their mode of transport. Those relying on tyres are ‘rubber tramps’, those relying on their feet are ‘leather tramps’.
For too long, I had been a rubber tramp, pumping any spare cash I had into the fuel tank of my camper van. And then something unexpected happened. Like 30,000 other teachers across the UK in the academic year 2010–2011, I was made redundant when the cuts to education hit my school. It was a strange time: at once both liberating and terrifying.
Suddenly, I had all the time in the world to travel wherever I wanted, but I had no money to fund the journey. When the idea came, it was so simple it startled me. Why not go for a walk – a long walk? I fuelled myself with Laurie Lee and George Orwell, John Hillaby and Iain Sinclair, and I wondered if I could, perhaps, write a book of my own, about a long and moneyless walk from my home in Cornwall to London.
I bought good boots, a warm sleeping bag, a tiny camping stove and a knapsack to stuff them all into. Then I practised, leaving my van keys at home and walking the mine trails, estuary paths and ley lines of Cornwall.
It was soon time to begin. Thrusting a change of clothes and a few tins of beans into my knapsack, I closed the door to my home behind me...
I had set myself two rules, rules that would minimise any potential expenditure: I would not pay for transport and I would not pay for accommodation. I would walk and, when it was time to sleep, I would sleep rough.
The daytime was glorious, spent hiking the Cornish South West Coast Path up to Bude, veering off along Devonshire and Somerset country roads until Bristol, and then following waterways – the River Avon, the Kennet and Avon Canal, the River Thames – steering along their towpaths all the way to London Bridge.
The nights, on the other hand, held terrors I had envisaged but not prepared for. Wrapped inside my sleeping bag with no shelter to speak of, I was, to all intents and purposes, homeless – and a hitherto unseen world opened up to me.
In Newquay, a trio of bristling teenagers lit the gas burner on my stove, held it up towards my face and demanded I give it to them. In Bristol, I was threatened by a drug dealer in a dark and terrifying underpass. In London, I watched – frozen with terror – as a young man in a suit kicked a rough sleeper into unconsciousness.
When I ended up living in a tent in London with a homeless man who was arrested (and later sent to jail) for assaulting his friends with a knife, I knew it was time to end my journey.
I caught a bus home and when I stepped back into the house I had not seen for three months and my wife enfolded me in a warm embrace, I was engulfed by relief. Yet still something nagged.
I eventually recognised it as the echo of the walk itself. While the nights had been fraught with danger and paranoia, the days – those wonderful days when I did nothing but walk, observing and experiencing the country – had been hypnotic. I missed the coastal paths and canal-sides, the cliff faces and back roads, the sand dunes and towpaths...
My long walk has had two effects on me. First, it opened my eyes to homelessness. Now, I donate regularly to my local shelter, which I believe is the best thing to do to try and assuage and alleviate the growing issue of homelessness.
Secondly, it taught me the best way to travel. I have since sold my camper van. Now, whenever I travel, I walk. Because I’ve learnt that if you really want to see a country, there is no better locomotion than the feet and the heart.